Powers beyond human ken. Colorful uniforms. Deep psychological issues. It's all about superheroes, one of the most enduring forms of popular literature. There have been brilliant examinations of superhero psychology over the years, but there has not been the same level of attention paid to the supervillain, those dramatic watchsprings of the superhero genre.
That's where Austin Grossman, a freelance game designer and Berkeley grad student, comes in. His first novel, Soon I Will Be Invincible, delves into the psychology of both a noted supervillain and a neophyte superhero as they go about their respective missions in a colorful universe that is similar, but not related, to the twin giants of the modern superhero mythology, DC and Marvel. While many of the points Grossman makes have been made in different media, not much attention has been paid to the dark side of the fence, and Grossman deserves credit for taking this approach.
As the novel opens, readers are introduced to Doctor Impossible, one of the novel's two viewpoint characters and quite possibly the world's most notorious supervillain. He's in prison for the 12th time, and plotting his escape so he can try to take over the world again, but questioning his past career trajectory. His musings are somewhat complicated by the fact that CoreFire, the Superman to his Lex Luthor (except that the Doctor actually has powers beyond his turbocharged IQ), has vanished. When the Doctor escapes, a chain of events is set in motion that leads to the recruitment of the other viewpoint character, Fatale, a kick-ass cyborg.
Over the course of the novel's events, readers are treated to an exploration of how humans might adapt to having superpowers, on both sides of the moral line. Grossman takes an often-used but rarely thought out trope—namely, the tendency to assume that the smarter people get, the more likely they are to turn evil—and explores it from the other side, imagining what it must look like for an intensely lonely genius to try and relate to others, and how failure to do so might affect a person. What comes through clearly in his exploration is how loneliness, more so than powers or a shared goal, might bind heroes and villains together. Some readers might think the high-school clique motivation behind much of the later dynamics a little too simplistic, but Grossman goes a long way toward making this believable, especially given the likelihood that many of the costumed, good and evil alike, do what they do partly out of arrested development.
Despite all the in-depth psychological and emotional points here, the novel can be enjoyed completely as an archetypal superhero story. It's rare to find something that can be thoroughly enjoyed as both an action story and a psychological exploration. Grossman's debut novel is a rip-roaring introduction to a universe that will soon end up on a bookshelf near you and is well worth your time.